The first thing to be said is that Steve Teles has written a terrific book. The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement tackles a topic of vital importance, is exhaustively researched and documented, and offers thoughtful and nuanced arguments that, for the most part, persuade. The book also achieves the rarely achievable: it bridges the divide between academia and, for lack of a better term, non-academia, offering a theoretically rich account that draws on historical institutionalism, organizational theory, and the sociology of knowledge, while also supplying much red meat for political columnists and combatants from across the ideological spectrum. I especially appreciated his desire to pry open the black box of organizational dynamics, looking not only at why the conservative legal movement has had many successes, but how it has done so, with attention thus to the crucial ingredients of money, leadership, luck, and learning that contributed to these successes. I also learned a great deal about both the conservative legal movement and American politics in the late 20th century. [click to continue…]
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First off, thanks to Crooked Timber for letting me guest-blog this week on work-and-family issues. In this last blog, I’d like to offer some reflections about what Americans might learn about the way other countries are addressing child care, parental leave, and working time. In the much-talked about book by Judith Warner, Perfect Madness, she argues we should look at the French model of child care and family support. I do not suggest we try to wholly transport the Swedish or Dutch or French model of public policy to the United States, as each model has distinct historical and cultural roots that would defy replication elsewhere. Moreover, it seems that the quickest way to doom an idea in American politics is to point out that this is how it is done in some other country.
No, instead I suggest we might learn from the way some European countries go about dealing with what is often a controversial issue – whether or not mothers should work when their children are young, and what the role of the state should be in subsidizing these decisions—and then figure out our own homegrown solutions. While conservative observers hold that official European policy increasingly favors the imposition of “radical feminism” – meaning the elimination of the full-time homemaker – the reality is considerably more complex. In countries such as Germany or Austria, the attachment to parental care is so strong that state policy has long sought to subsidize mothers (or the very few fathers) who stay home with young children. In France, because people have different views on this question – much as in the United States – government policy subsidizes both child care and parents at home, rather than impose one model on everyone. France’s free, universal preschool system appeals as much to stay-at-home-moms as it does to working mothers. Even in Sweden, one conservative commentator has to admit, the very long parental leave time is indicative of a strong commitment to parental care. As a result, many more babies are breast-fed for six months in Sweden than in the United States.
In addition, publicly-subsidized child care is not the Leviathan envisioned by many conservatives, by which the state uses its power to manipulate the hearts and minds of young children. In Germany and the Netherlands, the state subsidizes voluntary organizations – many of which are religiously-based – who then provide kindergartens, day care, and other family-related services. While services for families are subsidized, parental choice is maintained. This is very much in line with the church-run day care favored by social conservatives as a last resort.
In short, a commitment to the material well-being of families does not imply a one-size-fits-all solution, whereby one set of values gets imposed on everyone else. What is needed is first some agreement that subsidizing families with children is a worthy goal – something we have long done through both the tax code and publicly-supported education. Then, a pluralistic vision of family needs could bring together liberals and social conservatives, if the latter are willing to shed their alliance with economic libertarians, and the former relent in their focus on abortion and the strict separation of church and state (which complicates state subsidies to church-run day care). But first, we need to start having that sensible national conversation about work and family.
While people often view the work-family question through the lens of women’s equality and employment, in some European countries the focus is on how to get men to do more housework and child care. This is nothing new in Scandinavian countries, many of which replaced their maternity leave programs in the 1970s with gender-neutral parental leaves. As sociologist Barbara Hobson details in her edited volume, Making Men into Fathers, the Swedish government also developed an informational campaign in the 1970s to encourage men to be more active in parenting. One of the most famous images from the campaign featured the well-known Swedish weight lifter, Hoa-Hoa Dahlgren, cradling an infant. More recently, the Dutch government ran a similar television ad campaign, showing a father and his children sitting around a table when the mother appears and hands her husband a plate of meat. A voice meant to be that of the son then says, “Who is this man cutting the meat?” as text flashes that says, “Men are as indispensable at home as they are at work.”
Increasing men’s parenting time also has informed Dutch policies that give all workers the right to request part-time hours from their employers. One goal of the policy is to encourage both parents to work part-time and split caregiving duties at home. So far, few parents are actually living this model; in 2003, only six percent of couples with young children had both parents working part-time. Nearly 75 percent of employed Dutch women work part-time—the highest rate of part-time work in the western world. Still, the ideal is out there.
Ultimately, the focus on men is an attempt to maintain the lengthy leaves and flexible work-time that parents cherish while mitigating the disproportionate effects of these policies on women. These efforts are not only revealing of the gender egalitarian discourse around parenting in many European countries, but also of the importance parents place on having time to care for their own children. Few policy-makers advocate cutting parental leave or the availability of part time work. Instead, they have adopted the goal—rhetorically if not substantively—of making men into fathers.
Critics often assert that parental leave, public child care, and other family support programs force society to pay for people’s private choices. If parents do not want to bear this burden, they should not have children in the first place, rather than foisting the costs onto everyone else. Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, counters these claims by arguing that children are like public goods. While parents bear most of the costs of raising children, to the extent that children grow into productive, tax-paying citizens, they create positive externalities that benefit the rest of society. People who contribute little time or money to the raising of children essentially free-ride on the parental labor of others. As she wrote in the American Prospect a few years ago:
“[Children] grow up to be taxpayers, workers, and citizens. The claims we collectively enforce on their income will help finance our national debt and fund Social Security and Medicare. Even if all the intergenerational transfers in our tax system were eliminated, leaving all us baby boomers to rely on our own bank accounts in old age, we would need to hire the younger generation to debug our computers and help us into our wheelchairs.”
To those who say having children is a private choice, much like deciding to get a pet, I’ve heard Folbre trenchantly respond, “Yes, but will your golden retriever pay for your Social Security?”
While there currently is no national conversation in the United States about parental leave and working time, there is some rumbling at the grassroots. A recent New York Times article profiled one organization, Take Back Your Time, which advocates paid childbirth and parental leave, improved protections for part-time work, and guaranteed minimum vacation time. Last year, California instituted the first paid parental leave system in the country – an entirely employee-funded system that costs the average worker $27 a year. Activists are lobbying at the state level to try to replicate the California model in other states, and have had some success in Washington State.
The experience of parental leave in other countries offers some lessons about its possible effects on the economy, employers, and women’s employment. Parental leave programs generally are not very expensive, amounting to at most one or two percent of GDP. Firms in Western Europe report that they face no major disruptions from parental leave, as long as the leave is not too long (more below). There also is a wide consensus that parental leave increases, rather than decreases, women’s employment (a lengthy OECD report offers details).
One potential downside is that, even though most countries make parental leave open to both men and women, women take the vast majority of leave days. When leave is long, this can have some consequences for women’s place in the labor market. In Sweden, for example, parents have the right to a parental leave of up to 18 months, but women take nearly 85 percent of parental leave days. Women also predominate among the ranks of part-time employees. As a result, the Swedish labor market is one of the most sex-segregated in the world, as women cluster in public sector jobs that are structured around the assumption of interrupted work schedules and part-time employment. Thus, one major goal of Swedish policy these days is to encourage men to take more parental leave; already there are two months of “daddy only” leave (in addition to paternity leave), that are lost to the couple if the father doesn’t take them. Yet, men working in private sector jobs report feeling pressured by their employers not to take a lengthy leave.
More generally, whether or not parental leave is costly, difficult for employers, and harmful to women’s employment hinges on the length of the leave. The current menu of family leave proposals in the US is unlikely to have these negative consequences. The California leave offers only six weeks of leave paid at 55% of wages – up to a maximum of $728/week—and is paid for by employees. This is unlikely to break the bank, sink the economy, or undermine the place of women in paid work.
First off, let me extend my thanks to Crooked Timber for letting me guest-blog this week. I will jump right into the fray by remarking on why the United States is not having a conversation about working time and the need for a better work-life balance, despite the expansion in the annual number of hours worked. This trend puts the US at odds with much of Western Europe, where the annual number of hours worked has fallen since the 1970s (as shown by the OECD). The United States also is one of the only advanced industrialized countries without a paid parental leave. Yet, the silence on these issues – from both major political parties – is deafening.
One reason is the weakening of labor unions in the United States. While unions have not always been strong advocates for women’s rights, the feminization of the labor force and union membership in many European countries had injected concerns about working time, parental leave, and child care into union and left party politics. Without a similar collective actor in the US, American parents lack an organized proxy that can champion their interests in the political sphere. Moreover, the issues of child care and parental leave are most pressing for parents at a time when they are too busy to become politically active. Politicians simply do not hear that they need to expend political capital to address the needs of working parents. What they do hear, however, are the voices of the highly organized movement of social conservatives that will strongly oppose public child care subsidies and paid leave as favoring working mothers over stay-at-home moms. This asymmetry of political activism – frazzled and unorganized parents versus a politically mobilized minority – creates substantial obstacles to a sensible conversation about work and family.